The issue of plastic and single use disposables is the at the forefront of environmental consciousness on the web, that is no secret, however many people disagree about the solution to the "single use" problem, here I will be giving reasons as to why, at EthiLogical, we believe that a proactive solution to all waste is preventing it at its source.
Advocates of ending the use of single use disposables are stating that cleaning up the mess will not solve the root of the problem, citing that there would be no incentive for people to stop littering if others are picking it up for them. The goal of this assertion is of course to get back to the root of the problem, however picking up trash and recycling are still very good things to do, and there are many viable options of waste disposal and reuse which I will list later on.
We are still in a time where people tend to be fearful of waste incineration, reciting the ills of antiquated trash incinerators and releasing of harmful dioxins, the fact of the matter is, those types of incinerators are not widely in use anymore, many companies such as Covanta have waste incineration facilities all over the United States, with very sophisticated filters, producing very little harmful air pollution. (https://www.covanta.com/Sustainability/Environmental-Overview/Emissions-Information)
These facilities don't just burn the waste, the energy trapped in the plastic (which is typically of petroleum origin) organic waste and all other forms of combustible waste is released, which can then be fed to the grid, the heat can be used in homes, so it too is not wasted. Metals and non-combustibles are then sorted and recycled. These facilities are very sophisticated technologically, the flue gasses and dioxins are heavily filtered and the gas that leaves the top of the stack is relatively pure. The ash left over is often used as an inert additive to cements, which can be used of course for infrastructure projects, so even the solid materials that are left can be reused.
Sweden, for example, produces a steady supply of energy from these facilities, and burns nearly all of their trash, they even import trash from other countries to incinerate and process as well! That is no small achievement. If we can get past the unwarranted fear of facilities like this, and educate others, not only could we stop using up property and valuable land for wasteful landfills, (potentially creating more jobs, real estate etc.) we could also generate clean energy, reduce methane emissions which would otherwise be released by the decay of organic matter in open landfills; and get closer to solving two problems at once, giving single use waste a final purpose, and generating clean energy simultaneously.
If we can produce clean energy from the amount of waste we produce in America, that will eliminate the factor of methane production if it were to have gone to a landfill, as well as reducing the need to produce energy from petroleum sources, thus reducing air pollution.
This solution is not the only solution however, biodegradable polymers are another, however most typically have to be composted in a high temperature composting facility, giving rise to the same general limitation, disposal. Most recycling facilities cannot recycle PLA, and other related bioplastics, in the future this could change, as PLA can be recycled, it is just a matter of gauging the feasibility of adoption, and the economic demand for such biobased polymers.
The principled solution, which is to simply reuse everything and eliminate single use entirely cannot be all encompassing, as every single person is not likely going to make the switch to reusable everything, the same with companies, as with food preservation and freshness, shipping, storage etc; there is currently no viable alternative, which there typically never is in all fairness. Although the reality that we cannot eliminate plastic use entirely is unfortunate, it does not mean that plastic disposal will remain the same, a lump some of which ends up in rivers and subsequently the ocean. Recycling and incineration are the best ways to offset the negative effect of the waste stream on a large scale, but eliminating plastic from your life entirely may prove difficult, but not impossible! The possibilities of new technology in energy generation, land use, waste disposal and re-purposing are very promising.
Finding as many viable replacements for single use materials will be the best course of action to reduce litter, pollution and landfill size, but with all these options considered, it will take a multifaceted approach in order to truly tackle this problem. No single thing can tackle single use waste. Legislating them out of existence is simply not likely to happen everywhere, it is a large industry and the only ways to effectively and responsibly modulate it, is to buy less plastic, let less plastic get into oceans and landfills, and recycle or incinerate it responsibly.
We can all do our part to close the gap when it comes to waste, the idea of a circular economy is a diverse and potent one, and is the way of the future, efficiency, reuse and responsibility.